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Bee keeper Dick Crawford (R) shows his hives to North Country Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh)  Photo: Brian Mann
Bee keeper Dick Crawford (R) shows his hives to North Country Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) Photo: Brian Mann

For North Country beekeepers, death and questions

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We've been hearing a lot lately about honeybee mortality and big die-offs and fears about things like Monsanto's genetically modified corn.

A report issued last October by the US Department of Agriculture found that "overall losses" for commercial beekeepers in the U.S. continue to be high, and described hive collapse as a mystery.

Farm experts say the loss of honeybees could threaten the pollination needed for a wide range of crops, including the apple orchards that grow in the Champlain Valley.

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On a bee farm south of Plattsburgh, one farmer is struggling to understand — and cope with — devastating losses in his hives.

Dick Crawford is walking through a small meadow near his house in Morrisonville. On this day, the hives here in their neat square green and white boxes are literally humming with life.

But Crawford says like a lot of beekeepers he and his hives face a dangerous, uncertain new world. The last couple of winters, his bees just went silent.

"Two years ago, I had 97 percent. Last winter, I had 66 percent loss," he says. "They were on their way down, they were crashing. Before all this started, you would have five to 10 percent losses."

There are a lot of threats out there, Crawford says. Colony collapse disorder, worries about genetically modified plants, invasive mites from Russia, and even viruses.

He picks up a dead bee that's been dumped by the hive's workers outside one of the boxes.

Close-up of a bee with Deformed Wing Virus. Photo: Wikipedia
Close-up of a bee with Deformed Wing Virus. Photo: Wikipedia
"See this one? This is a Deformed Wing Virus. The bee was killed at an early stage, as a larva. See the wings are gone?"

Crawford says he doesn't have a firm opinion yet about whether genetically modified corn developed by Monsanto is having a big impact on his hives — but he's clearly worried.

"If you notice around the area, a lot of farmers are clearing land and they're going to be basically planting corn, genetically modified seed."

Crawford says even if GMO foods aren't threatening his bees, the loss of more diverse forage for these busy pollinators could improverish their diets, leading to higher mortality.

On this day, he's giving a tour to North Country congressman Bill Owens from Plattsburgh – who's made farm issues one of his priorities. Owens says he's not sure what to think about Monsanto and GMO crops. He says he's "still doing the fact-finding piece. As you drive around the North Country you see a lot of the Monsanto signs that are in the ground. I have farmers who are telling me it's a great thing. I have people telling me that it's the worst thing in the world."

This is controversial stuff. Europe has banned some insecticides and genetically modified seeds in hopes of protecting bee populations.

Crawford finds a bee that has developed without wings - a defect that he blames on a virus.  Photo: Brian Mann
Crawford finds a bee that has developed without wings - a defect that he blames on a virus. Photo: Brian Mann
In the US, where bee populations have crashed the last six years, the US Agriculture Department hasn't pushed for those kinds of prohibitions.

For their part, the company Monsanto has opened its own research efforts into bee mortality and held a summit with beekeepers last month.

This is a national problem, with bees serving as pollinators for billions of dollars worth of crops each year. But for Dick Crawford, this is clearly also personal.

He loves bees. When one lands on my shoulder, he's thrilled.

"You look at both of her sets of wing, she's good. She's grooming and cleaning herself right now," he says. "We're getting a good show here."

The way Crawford sees it, his bees are sort of an indicator of the health of the larger landscape – and each tiny bee is also a symbol of how everything around his farm is connected.

"Everything within a four to five mile radius, they pollinate. So if I have an organic farmer on one side of me, and I've got another guy planting GMO on the other side of me, and the bees are going to both fields, everybody's going to get contaminated by something."

If Crawford's bees continue to die at a high and unsustainable rate, the pressure to find out why – and to do something – will grow. In May, protesters in Saranac Lake joined marchers in 52 countries calling for more regulation of pesticides and genetically modified crops.

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